Ethical Consulting Is Not An Oxymoron

Dec. 21, 2004
Certification and standards help industry uphold honesty.

In the early days of modern management consulting, the relationship between consultant and client worked because the consultant was personally connected to the client. Back then, the business community was smaller and most of the players knew each other. Today, many consultants and clients are strangers at the beginning of an assignment. In order for a consultant's work to be successful, honest communication and trust need to be established on both sides of the equation. Imagine this scenario. During the course of an assignment, the client continually changes the scope of work. To make matters more confusing, the client also refuses to put objectives in writing. Should the consultant wait it out, and keep the meter ticking? No. Standard ethical practice dictates that the consultant sit down with the client, and say what one of my colleagues said, "We will not do any more work until you have figured out your objectives, why you need us to help, and what are the results you expect from us." In order to form an effective relationship, both the consultant and the client need to be clear about their roles and their objectives. In most situations, however, consultants can't know what will be useful unless they know how the client measures success. And in the interest of serving the client effectively, an ethical consultant will make tough choices and, as was the case above, give up an assignment when necessary. Honest communication also dictates that when something goes awry, the consultant informs the client, not covers it up. When I was a partner at a large consulting firm, a leading brokerage house engaged us to help them totally revamp their treasury and cash management system. In the early stages of the engagement, one of our key consultants suffered an emotional breakdown and had to be sent home on medical leave. I sat down and explained to the appropriate people why we had pulled the consultant, assuring the client that the new player, who was a little less experienced, would be more heavily supervised. The project was successfully completed, and the client was satisfied. Not all consultants are beyond reproach. As in any profession, an opportunity for corruption is also an opportunity to demonstrate integrity. The outcome of the situation depends to a great degree upon the individual's commitment to ethical conduct. A consultant, certified by the Institute of Management Consultants as a CMC, was advising a diversified construction company seeking financing. An investment banker had told the consultant that recommending a particular bank to company management "will be worth a half million dollars to you personally." The consultant refused the offer. He later discovered that one of his subordinates was recommending that same bank because of a similar offer. He fired the junior consultant. There are also well-established ways to deal with unscrupulous behavior in the profession. The Institute of Management Consultants (IMC) and the Association of Management Consulting Firms (AMCF) have long had a detailed code of ethics that members are obligated to uphold. Both IMC and AMCF have procedures for investigating alleged code violations and, over the years, have enforced sanctions where there were confirmed violations. In addition, as part of its certification process, the Institute requires consultants to pass a rigorous written examination testing their ability to apply the ethics code in practical situations. Ethical consulting is not unusual. Truly professional consultants treat it as standard practice. We always have. Steven A. Savia, CMC, is chair of the New York-based Institute of Management Consultants.

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